George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Turning the Tide: Taking Competition Out of School Reform

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
Related Tags: Education Trends, All Grades
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

The overall education policy and even more strongly, in my home state of New Jersey, encourages the development of charter schools. Often, support for charter schools is framed in the context of competition being good for education, as it is in business. It is difficult for me to understand why we want, need, or should tolerate competition for a public function such as education.

We don't have competition for police and fire services. These are required to be uniformly excellent and equitable. They are not always, but when they are not, they must be improved directly, not by siphoning funds for alternatives.

Parents should not have to take children out of public schools to put them into what are, in essence, experiments in education -- charter schools. We have a department of education in every state that should be responsible for upholding every child's right to a free, appropriate public education. This needs to take place with support and guidance, in a spirit of continuous improvement, not a punitive or punishing one. Perhaps it is not the local schools, but the departments of education, toward which greater accountability should be directed.

Valuing Teachers

Punishment, sanctions, and incentives (sticks and carrots) for educators have not proven to be successful, and in fact, may be harmful. (Please check out Barry Schwartz's talk at for a succinct summary of why we are moving in the wrong direction.) Just this week, an independent arbitrator has just found that Michele Rhee's 2008 firing of seventy-five teachers in Washington D.C. was unjust. That district must re-instate those teachers and pay their lost wages.

The vast majority of educators go into the field because they care about children and want to have a positive impact on the lives of children. They do not go into the field for fame or money. And children enter school with excitement and great enthusiasm about learning because they have no real sense of any limitations about what they can become. We must align our education system with these powerful motivational forces.

Working Together

Schools are and must be resources in their local communities. It hurts schools when parents of the most savvy are moved to take their children out. And what hurts schools also hurts their communities. It's not about the money, and no system outside of public education will ever have the widespread impact necessary to touch the lives of the majority of students.

Let's stop playing politics with children's lives and futures and provide the resources necessary for every public school to be a source of excellent educational opportunity, social and emotional learning, character development, and community pride.

What are your thoughts on this post? Please share with us.

Was this useful?

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

Comments (24) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Mick M's picture

[quote]work scarce in High Tech[/quote] Really... Try getting someone an H1B visa sometime. You can't. The top 3-4 Silicone Valley firms snatch up every available position every year importing software engineers from India to remain competitive. This is not outsourcing this is bringing employees to the US to work under US wages and labor law.

Harry Keller's picture
Harry Keller
President at Smart Science Education Inc.

The problem with this debate is the terminology and framing. People keep comparing apples and oranges. The latest so-called health care reform was mostly health **insurance** reform.

In a free market, health insurance companies worry about profits and shareholders (unless they're non-profit when they still worry about net cash flow). I do not like to have some corporate hack deciding which specialists I can see or what procedures are allowed.

Of course, foreigners come here -- the rich ones who can afford to pay the full cost of excellent health care found at MGH, Mayo, and UCLA. Most Americans don't have this access because they cannot afford it and aren't allowed to use it by their insurance.

People have been prompted (by the insurance industry and its flacks) to worry about government boards limiting their health care when their own internal and non-visible boards are doing the same thing with money and not lives the primary consideration. Actually, the reforms have only limited the ability of these secret insurance panels to decide on your life or death.

I have Medicare and get the best possible health care.

Back to education. No matter the original intent, the current purpose of the programs for charter schools and vouchers centers on helping wealthier families. Regardless of how widespread charters and vouchers become, public schools will remain -- universal free education as a right. However, these alternate programs will impoverish the remaining public schools and unfairly discriminate against those students in them. For a while, charter schools were the brave new world of education. Now, we find out that their performance, as an entire group, is on a par with public schools despite usually being able to cherry pick their students. I'll admit, nevertheless, that a few have stood out and that we should be able to learn from the successes. Despite all of this, I would advise you all to look at Finland where they reformed their schools without changing them in these ways.'s picture
Parent advocate for school choice

Jamie: Agreed, the free market doesn't "always work". Nothing "always works". But where are Enron and MCI now? Gone. Tyco almost joined them, but after investor-owners cleaned house, the company turned around and is a model of a well-run business today. Now, how many large school districts have been forced out of business, or even to significantly reorganize? That's right. None.

Where are the big urban school districts that have perpetuated failure for years now? Still there. Shrinking, of course, but still clinging to life. Still spending big dollars for modest results. Still ruining kids' lives. (I know, I know, the parents are to blame.)

Goldman compensation? Sure, it's obscene. But how about the $3,000/day consultant hacks (friends?) that my district employs, to no discernable benefit, year in and year out? Now multiply that by the 14,000 or so districts across the U.S. Or how about the multi-billion dollar per year textbook racket? (And that's what it is -- a racket.) Districts dole out millions for the most pathetic things, without evaluating the efficacy and -- more often than you might imagine -- without even knowing if the product or service was even delivered. I know. I've seen it. Or what about the superintendents pulling down mid-six figure salaries only to fail, and move on to another gullible district for another two years? "Ethics"? One supe from our area was able to move to a new district in the state -- and even get a raise -- while he was under criminal investigation!)

"Accuracy and honesty"? How about all of the so-called education data on student achievement and graduation rates, which we have learned over the past few years were either consciously doctored or so incompetently compiled that it was a national disgrace? "Fairness"? How about the failing school district that won't allow a student to leave to attend a better school in an adjacent school district? ("Oh, you can leave. But you can't take your STATE funding with you." As if the money belonged to that incompetent district...)

"Tyco-style employee relations"? Huh?!? This one is really a peach. You're a teacher and you are touting school district employee relations as a model? The personnel practices I've seen in education are about as clumsy and counter-productive as they come. The Post Office is a model of perfection in comparison. Customer "disservice"? "Want a different school from the one we ruined in your neighborhood? Sorry, you'll have to move." "Callous disregard"? (OK, I added that one.) What about the district that tells the single mom, "You want to go to that nice school down the street? You'll have to buy a $700,000 house in that district."

You talk about "community impact"? Please. See all of the above.

No, the free market allows lots of mistakes to happen, but it also allows much more accountability than one almost ever sees in many school districts. But the real issue isn't the market, or even competition. It is choice. Without choice, there is no accountability. Do we want to give parents the freedom to choose the educational environment that is right for their child? Do we want to continue with a Soviet-style, centrally commanded, top-down system that allows so little choice for parents or students -- who are the ones who have the most to gain or lose? Do we want the shoddy quality, shady ethics, and arrogant mis-management that such systems almost always produce? Or do we want to give people a choice? The fact is -- no matter what you and I think -- people with children are abandoning the school district monopolies. And the taxpayers have lost all faith in those systems. You can harangue them all you want, but you can't make them support you if they have lost faith.

These monopolies are disintegrating, just like the Soviet bloc finally disintegrated, because they cannot produce the results expected by the people who pay for them. We are gradually discovering, as the citizens of the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand and elsewhere have known for decades, that school choice is good for students, good for families, and especially good for the institution of public education. The question for every educator to ask is this: Am I going to be play a useful role in creating a freer, more accountable public education system? Or not?

Harry Keller's picture
Harry Keller
President at Smart Science Education Inc.

Having worked in this area for a long time and worked with H1B imports, I can say a bit about it. These people, in my limited experience, did not work for "U.S. wages." They worked for relatively low wages in comparison with U.S.-born counterparts. The primary reason for bringing them here was to save money on salaries, and a secondary reason was to depress the wages of U.S.-born workers. At the time, we had the workers. They just cost too much. The bottom line was the bottom line: money. It wasn't about getting enough qualified workers; it was about getting cheap qualified workers.

Harry Keller's picture
Harry Keller
President at Smart Science Education Inc.

The problem with the "free" market is that it isn't free. Adam Smith's invisible hand is in handcuffs. Any institution that gets too large and powerful will abuse that power to get more. Doesn't matter whether it's Wall Street or health insurance or teachers' unions.

Once a large institution gets large enough, it distorts the "free" market until it's no longer recognizable as such.

What does all of this say about private education? Until recently, it was about tuition. If you paid it, you also paid taxes to support the public schools who received more money for fewer students as a result.

Can you have a system where private and public schools compete directly?

If private schools take over in an area, will they focus on the bottom line or will they put the students first? You can see indications for the former. How much room do we have for entrepreneurship in universal education?

These are not easy questions. I think but cannot prove that a public education monopoly is preferable to a private one. I don't know about a mixed system but worry that money will be drained from the public schools to support the private ones.

It's like the issue of local control. How local is local? The truth is that the control is in the individual classroom. That's where the teacher and students are in close proximity and learning should take place. Does a school principal or district superintendent or state department of education or the federal government have any real say over what happens there? Should they?

jamie martindale's picture
jamie martindale
HS social studies

Wow - there sure are a lot of corporate apologists out there! Several people responded to me with excuses for why corporate misbehavior isn't really so bad, since the educational system makes mistakes too. Like the billionaires' high crimes are justified by the millionaires' misdemeanors...

Well, how about this: watch the documentary "The Corporation." It makes a powerful argument that since incorporated businesses are given a fiduciary duty to seek the best return possible for their shareholders without regard to other factors (like community impact), the will always end up treating people as means to an end, rather than ends in themselves. People are automatically dehumanized into objects by this approach. Profits are required to come first, and the vast majority of corporate entities will sacrifice long-term for short-term, sacrifice natural green for paper green, and sacrifice other stakeholders for shareholders. I do not wish to be dehumanized further. I want businesses required to audit and monitor and report on their community impact with equal vigor to the way they report on earnings.

And, I certainly don't want children in educational institutions corporatized any more than they already have been. They are not numbers, or test scores, or a set of funds to be competed for. They are inherently valuable creatures who deserve to be supported strongly in their development by their whole society - - particularly those who are most well-off, since to whom much is given, much is expected in return. (And don't give me that "they earned it" crap - the system is tilted to favor certain professions and industries, and not by free choice. We need a MORE progressive tax system, not a flatter one!)

Dan Monroe's picture

Obj. The problem with the "free" market is that it isn't free.
Resp. Not free of risk on the one hand or of cronyism on the other.
All public institutions aim at curtailing risk. Totalitarianism is the ultimate in risk reduction, so our problem is drawing the line: when does risk reduction at public expense become totalitarianism? The answer in America is presumably a matter of checking whether risk-reduction violates, say, the Bill of Rights or contravenes the spirit animating the Federalist letters or the Declaration of Independence. One point that seems to be missing from these discussions is just whether compulsory education is consistent with liberty. I no longer believe that most Americans do not want liberty; they want equality of risk and equality of outcome, but liberty guarantees neither. So does anyone want to argue that compulsory and monopolistic education is more consistent with centrifugal liberty?
The malicious intentions of businessmen were recognized and addressed by Adam Smith. I have never read him say anything good about businessmen; in fact, he remarked that since owners can combine in their own interests, there was no reasons workers could not! But please read more of Smith to get the whole story. At any rate, he never envisioned a national parliament which was so utterly corrupt as our own; as long as congressmen and other office-holders are the best that money can buy, we have no protection against cronyism and other forms of corruption, which now go by the name of capitalism. Maybe this is why St. Augustine observed that a state which knowingly elects scoundrels deserves to lose its democracy.

Mick M's picture

[quote]I do not like to have some corporate hack deciding which specialists I can see or what procedures are allowed.[/quote] Yes... the idea of some government hack with unlimited job security operating under the rules set by politicians on the take is much better.

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

I will simply point out one example that, to me, is closer to the model of education that I envision than any other: Parenting. There is no choice, with some small exceptions, but there is extraordinary accountability. Education, like parenting and pediatrics, is a moral enterprise. Our most valuable resource, children, are entrusted to adults for nurturance and guidance. We have every reason to expect and demand that parents, pediatricians, and educators are held to high standards. Indeed, one can make the argument that where there is no choice, there should be greater accountability. Interestingly, there are few structures to help children when parents are not adequately accountable until calamity strikes. Among those structures are educators and pediatricians. Those professionals are accountable to their professional oaths, to their credentialing authorities, to their colleagues, and to their own moral sense. There is no reason whatsoever why the public schools cannot be the source of innovation, of creative and well monitored experimentation, and of a relentless commitment to excellence through a spirit of continuous improvement. The problems of the public education system- and there are many- will not be fixed by creating a small, unscalable alternative structure to which there is not de facto equal access. The intention of charter schools is laudable, but their structural location is the problem. While they are public schools, they are not operating in synergy with, and as positive enhancers to, the public education system, at least not at present.

As some commentators have said, there can be no losers in public education. A good education is civil right and a matter of social justice, not market forces and competition. Improving public education is a moral obligation and deserves the unending energy and focus of all concerned, including those who are putting so much time into charter schools.

Joe Nathan, Director, Center for School Change, Macalester College's picture

Yes, Dr. Elias is correct that no children chose their parents.

Does this mean that families should not be allowed to
a. Select people who represent them in government
b. Choose among certain schools at the k-12 level
c. Choose schools at the higher ed level

In each of the 3 cases, I would answer yes.
Incidentally, regardless of what Elias argues, wealthy people will be able to choose schools for their children - including "public" schools" in wealthy suburbs that can and do exclude children from low income families, who can not afford to live there.

History is on the side of people who support expanding public school choice for low/moderate income families. What Professor Elias calls markets, many of us call democracy.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.